When a 23-year-old Cape Verdean was elected mayor of Fall River, some saw the birth of a star: a fresh face among the usual suspects of Massachusetts politics.
But when federal prosecutors charged Mayor Jasiel Correia with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from investors, it prompted Gov. Charlie Baker — who Correia had crossed party lines to endorse — to ask the mayor to step aside. And perhaps more stinging, the city council cast a vote of no confidence and the residents of Fall River organized to recall him from office.
Far from heeding the widespread calls to step down, Correia pleaded not guilty to all the charges, and the go-to phrase among his supporters was established: "innocent until proven guilty."While his criminal case is ongoing, Correia's fate as mayor will be decided by a town-wide election Tuesday. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“I’m going to be voting against the recall; voting for Jasiel,” said city resident Jonas Correia, who has no relation to the mayor, during his lunch break at a sandwich shop in Fall River.
He said Correia should not be judged by the allegations he’s facing, but by the work he’s done since the indictment came down five months ago. And by that measure, he said, the mayor is doing an excellent job.
“[The court case] hasn't really been a factor at all,” Jonas Correia said, adding that the mayor has been good for first responders.
But that doesn't mean it's okay to commit wire fraud, he added. “I hope justice is taken regardless," Jonas Correia said. "Whether it's good or bad [for the mayor], that's my standpoint: justice still has to be taken. If he's a guilty man, we’ll find out.”
Criminal charges against Correia trace back to before he was elected mayor, the youngest in city history, and possibly the only Cape Verdean mayor in state history. He'd founded a startup based on a social media app, SnoOwl, and prosecutors accused him of using the money of unwitting investors to fund a lavish lifestyle.
The mayor faces nine counts of wire fraud, with a maximum sentence of 20 years, and four counts of filing false tax returns, with a maximum sentence of three years.
And there’s no way Correia can fight that legal battle and be an effective mayor, his critics say — including Joseph Pereira, one of the organizers of the recall effort. Once the captain of a tall ship, Pereira now works in the telecom business. He worries that having four candidates challenge the mayor will divide the opposition. Even if the recall is successful, all Correia has to do is eke out the largest number of votes — which is to say he could survive even if the vast majority want him out.With no polling to go off of, Pereira says the city could see a huge surprise on recall day. “I was in a store the other day, someone recognized me and literally out of 15, 20 people who were nearby ... they were like, ‘he's got to go, he's got to go, he's got to go,’ … which is somewhat encouraging when we put this much effort into it. But I could easily walk into another store or have somebody recognize me and throw a pie at me.”
Pereira said the recall effort has led to a division among Fall River residents that he's never seen before, and like others, he hopes the recall, whatever the result, will help heal some of the wounds.
Among the four people running against Correia are a long-time city councilor, a school administrator and a veteran of the nonprofit world. One of the best known is Paul Coogan, a school committee member who worked for more than two decades in the administration of Fall River’s Durfee High School.
Coogan agrees with the argument of Correia’s opponents, that the city has to be suffering economically as a result of having a mayor who's facing prison time. But more tangibly, he said the city has become a national laughing stock.“We don't we don't deserve this,” Coogan said. “There’s a lot of good hardworking people in this city. As I told the mayor at the last debate, if he was in school with me at Durfee, I would have advised him to resign, go take care of your legal problems… Fall River is a community that believes in redemption, but he can't do it with [the scandals he's facing] every day.”
Correia did not respond to requests to comment for this story. But in his opening at a recent mayoral debate hosted by the Herald News, he summarized his pitch to the voters: “You’ve already heard from some of my opponents tonight talk about the indictment issue ... Tonight’s about the things that we’ve accomplished for you, for your life, for the renter, the homeowner, the senior, the veteran, the family, the child in this community – that’s what you hired me to do three-and-a-half years ago, and that’s what I’m going to continue to talk about each and every day that I’m on the job.”
Even if Correia wins by a small margin, it’s possible some civility will be restored in a city that’s been deeply divided over the effort to recall its mayor.
Opponents say whatever the outcome, they’ll be glad once this chapter is closed and they can start looking toward the next mayoral campaign. And that's only a few months away.
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies, including The Public's Radio, coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.